Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Seamus Heaney Wins T.S. Eliot Prize 2006

Seamus Heaney (pictured) last night won the T.S. Eliot Prize 2006 for best poetry collection published in Ireland or the UK for that year, as judged by the distinguished panel of fellow poets Sean O'Brien, Sophie Hannah and Gwyneth Lewis. His book, District and Circle, marks a 41-year career with Faber and Faber, and, while Heaney, recovering from a mild stroke in August 2006, was unable to attend, Paul Keegan of Faber read out his thoughtful acceptance speech, and Mrs. Valerie Eliot signed and handed over the prize money cheque to Heaney's daughter.

The award ceremony, organized by the Poetry Book Society (founded by Eliot years ago) was held in the glittering heart of Marylebone, in The Wallace Collection's fashionable atrium cafe, and was attended by nearly every poet, publisher, and event organizer concerned with poetry, of note in the UK, other than those primarily concerned with radically experimental writing. It was, as O'Brien pointed out in his speech, an unusually strong year - with Nobel laureates, Forward, Eliot and Pulitzer winners, up against each other in a dream field of traditional mainstream poetic brilliance. In the end, the judges went with quality, fame be damned. Whereas the Forward and Costa prizes dramatically turned against Heaney's masterful new book (getting headlines in the process which crowed about other poets beating Heaney as if he were a tied-down Gulliver among the small), the Eliot panel decided that, despite winning a Nobel, to quote Heaney on the BBC, "anything can happen".

It seems like a very good decision. The Eliot Prize is immensely prestigious and vital, and yet, the greatest Irish poet since Kavanagh has not won it. To deny Heaney on the grounds he was too prize-rich already would have been a shame. Poets never lose the need to be reminded of our love - and poets such as Heaney should be honoured in their lifetime.

Nonetheless, several other exceptionally deserving collections, sadly, had to go away empty-handed. The best of these, and surely the runner-up in most people's minds, was Paul Muldoon's exceptionally complex and brilliant Horse Latitudes, which took on American imperialism, pop culture, and bereavement, with equal levels of genius, mystery and vim; it is a major book, and should be sought out by any reader who wants to understand the verges where the post-modern and the tradition meet with most fecundity.
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